March 09, 1992 12:00 PM

AMONG TV’S FRESHMAN CLASS OF ’74, HAPPY DAYS had to be Least Likely to Succeed: a post-Watergate sitcom set in Eisenhower-era Milwaukee? Its savviest character a swaggering biker in a black leather jacket? “Aaaay,” said Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, in the role that made Henry Winkler an overnight star—and viewers responded with the Fonz’s trademark thumbs-up, making Happy Days the top-rated series in the 1976-77 season. As a retro pop-culture phenomenon, it helped define a decade. Its 1972 pilot had inspired George Lucas’s American Graffiti and its plot lines launched Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi. By the time ABC pulled the plug in 1984, “Sit on it!” and other Fonzisms had become national catchphrases, and the Fonz’s jacket was deemed worthy of display in the Smithsonian, where it now hangs. (Aaaay—talk about leaving skidmarks!)

Since Happy Days celebrated nostalgia, it was only a matter of time before Fonzie and his friends—squeaky-clean Richie Cunningham, amiably dopey Ralph Malph, musically mellow Warren “Potsie” Weber (who all live on in syndicated reruns)—got together for one last song on the jukebox. For two memory-laced days, nine of the show’s stars assembled at a Burbank, Calif., studio to tape a film-clip-and-savor class reunion that will air March 3 on ABC. During breaks, they fill each other in on how their lives and careers have fared since those happy TV Tuesdays when Elvis was young, U-2 was a plane, and Richie had to borrow his dad’s wheels.

Richie’s folks, Howard and Marion Cunningham—actors Tom Bosley and Marion Ross—are schmoozing about old times at a table in the studio lunchroom. Suddenly Richie himself, Ron Howard, 38, slides in next to Ross, who squeals and gives him a maternal hug. Then she notices the cap he’s wearing, emblazoned with the name of his production company, Imagine Films. “Look at him!” she declares. “Selling all the time!” In fact Hollywood has been sold on Howard as a director ever since the former child actor (Opie on The Andy Griffith Show) made a Splash in 1984 with his hit fantasy starring Daryl Hannah as a fish-out-of-water mermaid. He followed up with Cocoon, Willow and Backdraft, and this summer takes us Far and Away in a romantic epic starring young marrieds Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Ron’s steady has been Cheryl, his wife of 16 years. The couple live far from the Hollywood whirl—in Cos Cob, Conn., with daughter Bryce, 11, twins Jocelyn and Paige, 7, and son Reed, 4. Ron recalls his Happy Days days as “a pretty goddamn good time.” Of course, he adds, “It’s much easier to embrace your past when the past isn’t a limitation. Being the kind of director I dreamed I’d be, I don’t have to fret about whether or not people think of me as Richie or Opie.”

Henry Winkler, 46, isn’t fretting much these days either, even though he knows that, to a generation of boomers, he’ll forever be the Fonz. “I’m at peace with my past, with the character and with what I’m doing,” Winkler says. What he has mostly been doing, following a short-lived movie acting career (Night Shift, The One and Only), has been working behind the camera—as coexecutive producer of ABC’s MacGyver, which ends its seven-season run this spring. Now he’s directing Burt Reynolds in Cop and a Half for his pal Howard’s production company. “Ronnie’s the boss,” says Winkler. “Ronnie’s always the boss.” Their ties run deep: Henry and his wife, Stacey, married 14 years, are godparents to the Howards’ kids. And they have two of their own—Zoë, 11, and Max, 8—with whom they live in North Hollywood. “I have an incredibly good life,” says Winkler, “the foundation of which is Happy Days.”

Life has also been good to the former Mr. and Mrs. C. Tom Bosley, 64, went from delivering an exasperated “Rich-ard!” to a querulous “Jessica!” as Cabot Cove sheriff Amos Tupper, who had a flinty friendship with super-snoop Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) on Murder, She Wrote. Bosley then got to star in his own 1989 whodunit, Father Dowling Mysteries. His proposed new series, in which he’d play the only man in a household of women, is now being shopped at the networks by Kimberly Beebe, a production executive who is also Bosley’s 27-year-old stepdaughter from his marriage to his second wife, Patricia. (His first, Jean Eliot, died in 1978.)

Bosley still chats occasionally with his TV ex, Marion Ross. But whenever fans approach Ross, 63, to say how much they enjoyed her as Richie’s mom, it’s Jewish grandma Sophie Berger who stares back and replies: “Yes, but are you vatching da show now?” Da show, of course, is CBS’s critically acclaimed Brooklyn Bridge, which has made Ross’s career as hot as Sophie’s chicken soup. Her social life isn’t bad either. Ross, who divorced actor Freeman “Effie” Meskimen more than 20 years ago, is currently dating Tevye the dairyman—actually, Paul Michael, 65, who recently starred in a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. (Performing is a family tradition: The Meskimens’ son Jim, 32, and daughter Ellen Plummer, 30, are both actors.) Marion also maintains ties to her Happy Days brood. Winkler is a close friend, and he showed up last year at the Christmas party Ross threw at her San Fernando Valley home, along with two costars she hadn’t seen in years: Anson Williams and Donny Most—the show’s Potsie and Ralph, respectively.

Of all the returning alumni, Most, 38, may have had the least luck shaking his TV persona. After Happy Days, he wound up in low-profile movie and TV roles, including the voice of an adventurer named Eric in a Dungeons & Dragons special. Recently, though, Donny found a way out of the career dungeon by directing his first play, Doubles, in Los Angeles. On Valentine’s Day, he opened as a star of another L.A. play, Till Death or Whatever Do Us Part. Married for 10 years to Morgan Hart, a former actress, Donny lives with his wife and daughters, Madison, 5, and Mackenzie, 3, in Agoura Hills, an L.A. commuter town where, once or twice a month in the local supermarket, he will hear someone inquiring, “Say, weren’t you…?”

Williams, 42, was able to parlay his singing talents as Potsie into a glitzy Vegas-style act. But by the mid ’80s, he says, “I put the mike down and never picked it up again. It’s not what I was meant to do.” Ron Howard told him, “You should be directing,” and Williams went on to oversee episodes of L.A. Law and Hooperman. Recently old friend Howard hired him to direct Williams’s first feature film, All-American Murder, starring Christopher Walken. Split in 1986 from Lorrie Mahaffey (who played Potsie’s sorority sweetheart Jennifer on Days), Williams lives in Malibu with his second wife, Jackie Gerken, a former vice president of production for Dino De Laurentiis. The couple’s only coproduction so far is daughter Hannah, 2.

Scott Baio, 30, who played Fonzie’s studly cousin, Charles “Chachi” Areola, is still single and active on the L.A. dating scene. When he shows up at the reunion taping, most of the snacks put out for the cast seem to have vanished and Scott is left with a bag of potato chips. “That’s the change in the business,” he grumbles. Baio shouldn’t beef. Though his Joanie Loves Chachi spin-off lasted only a season (1982-83), he went on to score as a college-age baby-sitter on Charles in Charge (first on CBS, then in syndication) and is currently playing an apartment superintendent on ABC’s Baby Talk. Before going off to rap with his ex-castmates, Scott talks about the one most conspicuously absent: his former TV bride Joanie, Erin Moran. “Do I miss her? Yeah!” he says sadly. “I hope she’s happy, but I don’t know what she’s doing.”

Reached by phone at her Southern California spread, Moran, 31, says she was invited to the Happy Days reunion but flatly declined. The actress who once played Richie’s perky kid sister now claims that every member of the cast is “evil,” adding, “I pray for them.” She also charges some relatives with being “bloodsuckers” who are after her money and accuses the government of conspiring to hook the country on crack and speed. Moran refutes tabloid reports that she herself was a drug addict and scoffs at rumors that she has “found God.” Says Erin: “I’ve always had God.” For the past five years she has been married to Rocky Ferguson, a singer whose style she describes as “eclectic” and for whom she recently produced a demo tape. As for future acting plans, Moran, who began her TV career at age 7, says, “I want to do a movie about my life as a child star.”

Meanwhile, a couple of seasoned character actors, Pat Morita and Al Molinaro, are embracing each other in the lunchroom upstairs from the taping. Morita, 59, confides that “for a long while it felt like I would be the one [cast member] who wouldn’t go anywhere.” Not content with playing Matsuo Takahashi, better known as Arnold, the original owner of the drive-in eatery where Richie, Fonzie and the gang hung out, Morita became an early Happy Days’ dropout, leaving in 1976—only to star in back-to-back sitcom flops, Mr. Tand Tina and Blansky’s Beauties. Then, after a brief return to Happy Days in 1982, Morita wound up with a beauty of a role: the wise martial-arts guru Mr. Miyagi in 1984’s The Karate Kid and its two sequels. Divorced four years ago from his wife, Yuki, with whom he has two daughters (Aly, 21, and Tia, 16), Pat commutes between his L.A. home and Hawaii, where he has formed a home-video company. First release: a tape on shiatsu massage, due out this spring. Meanwhile, Morita has just finished work on Honeymoon in Vegas, with James Caan and Nicolas Cage, scheduled for this summer.

Molinaro, 72, who took over Arnold’s as avuncular Alfred Delvecchio, may be close to hanging up the apron. After costarring with Gregory Harrison in last season’s The Family Man, Molinaro. a onetime musician and TV producer, says, “I’ve done acting for 20 years and now I’m getting tired of it.” For the past couple of years, he has been developing sitcom ideas. On the front burner, Al and former costar Anson Williams are partners in Big Al’s, a chain of 14 restaurants in the Midwest, which they launched five years ago. Al and his wife, Sidney, live in Glendale, an L.A. suburb, and he has a son, Michael, 30, from a previous marriage. But Molinaro still feels the pangs of separation from his “other” family—never more strongly than at the cast reunion, where he hugs everyone in sight. “We went through marriages, divorces, babies, deaths in the family,” Molinaro recalls. And it’s hard for him, he says, to think about all that now. “I’m too emotional. It makes me crazy. In a week, though,” he adds sadly, “I’ll be terrible.”



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